Two Murders, a Martyr and a Musical

by Pat Launer February 28, 2012


By Pat Launer


The murder and rape of a 13-year-old girl. The lynching of a Jew.

Sounds like perfect fodder for a musical, right? Not exactly. But it inspired composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and playwright Alfred Uhry, who created the provocative musical “Parade,” based on the real-life story of Leo Frank.

“It has a passion and soul,” says co-creator Brown. “A fully immersive, emotional experience, like opera. It engages all the senses, and it gets you.”

It’s hard for the story not to get you. There are so many fascinating layers and elements. The case pressed every hot-button issue of the early 20th century: North versus South, black versus white, sophisticated versus uneducated, Jew versus Christian. The 100-year-old whodunit smacks of racism, anti-Semitism and class warfare.


The Bare Facts

On April 27, 1913, the bloody, bludgeoned body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan was discovered in the basement of Atlanta’s National Pencil Factory. The girl’s murder, and the heightened emotions and miscarriage of justice that surrounded it, climaxed in 1915 with the lynching of Leo Frank, the Cornell-educated Jewish factory manager who was convicted of the murder. It was one of the most sensational and shameful moments in the nation’s criminal history.

The case became an emblem of American intolerance, inspiring a 1937 Hollywood movie (“They Won’t Forget”), a 2009 PBS documentary (“The People v. Leo Frank”), the 1998 musical “Parade” and several books, most recently, “And the Dead Shall Rise” (2003), the highly lauded tome by journalist/editor and former Atlantan Steve Oney. The book was 17 years in the making, considered the definitive historical and legal examination of the case.

“It’s an overwhelmingly complex and nuanced piece of history,” says Oney, who, like composer/lyricist Brown, will come down from L.A. to work with the cast at Cygnet Theatre, which is presenting the San Diego premiere of the musical, “Parade,” March 8-April 22.

“It’s a double murder mystery and an intricate social history,” Oney continues. “There were so many people involved, and so many areas of gray. And so many years later, it can still stir people up.”

Some of the players included scandal-mongering newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and Adolph Ochs, a Tennessee Jew who became publisher of The New York Times.

“Hearst turned The Georgian into a tabloid and made the case national news,” Oney says. “To him, it was a great, juicy crime story. He played up the class differences more than the race and religion. He saw Leo Frank, age 29 at the time, making a fortune on the backs of child laborers like Mary Phagan.

“Ochs, a German Jew like the prominent families of Atlanta, took up the case as a cause célèbre, one of the only times The New York Times became involved in advocacy journalism, supporting the exoneration of Leo Frank.

“When my book came out, it was front-page news in Georgia,” Oney reports. “For the first time, it named the names: who the lynchers were, why they did it. The abduction and lynching could no longer be seen as a sudden outbreak of mob violence, an act of pure vengeance. It was a cold and calculated act, a perfect crime, never prosecuted.”

What Oney showed was that the perpetrators, who easily got access to the state penitentiary where Leo Frank was incarcerated, drove him 150 miles and hanged him from a poplar tree and were the crème de la crème of Atlanta society: a former governor, former mayor, state legislator, U.S. senator’s son, a judge, lawyers and business owners.

“They were very powerful men,” Oney says. “The D.A. at the time had determined there was no one to indict.”

In the two years prior to his death, Frank had been mounting appeals, which were repeatedly unsuccessful. At the 11th hour, the outgoing governor of Georgia granted executive clemency, commuting Leo’s death sentence to life in prison. That infuriated Atlantans.


Guilt, Innocence and the Aftermath

“Ninety percent of the population believed Leo was innocent,” Oney asserts, “and that Jim Conley, the black employee of the factory who testified against him, was guilty. But it was a Jewish, Cornell-educated engineer versus a black, uneducated laborer. The dynamic was tough. Sex, regional hostility, race, religion, money, the power of the press and class anxiety. It all came together to work against Leo Frank.”

There were so many intricacies and complications. The trial transcripts disappeared in the 1960s. A member of the prosecution team later recanted. Leo’s office boy changed his story. Finally, in 1986, the State granted Leo a pardon but stopped short of exonerating him.

The Frank case proved to be a catalyst for good and evil: the birth of the premier Jewish civil rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League, and the resurrection of the extremist Ku Klux Klan.

“After the case,” Oney says, “American Jews realized that homegrown anti-Semitism would continue and would require them to become more active and assertive. But at the time, the case was very controversial in the Jewish community. Many chose to do nothing, fearing that the publicity would fuel a fire of anti-Semitism. Lucille (Leo’s widow, who died in the late 1950s) took part in the attempts to exonerate him. But after the lynching, she, like the entire Jewish community, wouldn’t talk about the case. It was verboten, taboo. The whole affair was considered to be an assault on the highly assimilated Jewish community, part of Atlanta’s ruling elite. It became a piece of repressed history.

“The story is still relevant,” Oney asserts. “It was incredibly polarizing, sort of the beginning of the Red State/Blue State divide. The industrialists, lawyers, bankers and elite sided with Leo. The working-class, gentile populists were against Leo. It was the first time a white jury convicted a white man based on the testimony of a black man. The white jurors and lower class felt they had more in common with a black man than with a wealthy Jewish man. It was the only lynching of a Jew on American soil.”


A Musical — Really?

So, how on earth do you turn this complicated, not so black-and-white story into a cogent, potent, heart-rending musical?

For playwright Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy,” winner of an Oscar, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize), who grew up in Atlanta, the Frank story was personal. His great-uncle, who owned the National Pencil Factory, was Leo Frank’s boss. Uhry knew Frank’s widow, Lucille, as a little boy.

“Alfred always wanted to write about the case,” says composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”). “But he was afraid his mother would be shamed by it. In Georgia, he told me, everyone is scared of ‘turning into Leo Frank.’

“It never seemed like an odd choice for a musical to me,” Brown continues. “The biggest challenge was all the factual information we had to deal with.

“What we focused on was the complex emotional stories. That’s what musicals do well. So, it’s about Leo’s relationship to his wife and to the rest of the city. He felt better than those around him. He never fit in. As a Jew, I certainly understand his outsider-ness.

“We didn’t want to hit the Jewish element too hard,” Brown says. “We wanted him to be a martyr, not a Jewish martyr. He was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anti-Semitism definitely colored the way people saw him. But there were any number of excuses for why people hated him; his Jewishness was only one.”

Brown was just 24 when the show opened on Broadway in 1998, with a huge cast of 36 and a 20-piece orchestra. It was nominated for nine Tony Awards, and won for Best Book and Best Score, but it closed after only 84 performances. When it was re-mounted in London in 2007, it was pared down to a tighter focus and just 15 actors.

That spectacular, gut-wrenching production played in L.A. in 2009 and was hailed as “a brilliant musical” (Hollywood Reporter) that “zings the intellect, breaks the heart and roils the blood” (Curtain Up), “one of the most thrilling evenings of a theater-lover’s lifetime” (Christian Science Monitor).

That revised version finally arrives in San Diego this month.

With a cast of 16 and a seven-piece orchestra, this is the biggest production ever for Cygnet Theatre.

“This chamber version has a wonderful intimacy and intensity,” says Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray. “The experience of being that close to the story is very powerful. It’s complicated writing and complicated musically. It’s very cinematic in the way it moves from scene to scene. The music is so gorgeous, so brilliantly written, it supports the shift of tone and action. It requires a strong cast, and we’ve certainly got one.”

With the frequent changes of locale — the factory, courtroom, Frank home, prison, and more — Murray has taken a minimalist approach.

“The locations will be conveyed through style and light and theatricality,” he explains. “A lot will be up to the audience’s imagination. They’ll be drawn into the people and the story.”

In his preparation for the production, Murray’s research and thinking have gone beyond the mystery and murders.

“I’ve always been fascinated by what a single individual goes through when caught up in a historical moment. I look at pictures of Leo, especially in the courtroom, surrounded by this huge media circus. This was one of the first examples of the media trying someone in the papers. Leo began as an outsider — insecure, neurotic, arrogant, self-centered, closed-off. Everyone could project onto him their own hatreds, fears and insecurities. For that individual, it must be surreal, to have that swirling around you.

“I can’t get the images out of my mind or heart,” Murray continues. “The moment he’s taken from the cell, the one-and-a-half-hour ride in the car, in the dark, his fate completely out of his control. What’s going through his mind on the way to his lynching site? It haunts me. It’s a terrifying moment. He doesn’t fight and scream; he gives in to it.”

Murray is very familiar with the work of the acclaimed librettist, Alfred Uhry.

“The majority of his work is about Jews trying to assimilate in Southern America. The sense of alienation. The question of how much of the culture to give up in order to fit in. This play is set only 40-50 years after the Civil War, when Atlanta was burned to the ground. The city was rebuilt, but a lot of resentment remained. Everyone’s trying to hold onto what was lost. It used to be an agricultural economy, and now it’s all industrial and factories. And then, the Northern Jews started coming in, and the Southern Jews resented them.

“That’s all lurking and bubbling under the surface,” says Murray. “Leo is swept up in all of that. He’s looked at as a carpetbagger: A highly educated Northern Jew, brought down to run a factory that exploits child labor. He became a symbol of so many things — race, class, geography, industrialization.”

All these issues provide a contextual backdrop, but the musical focuses primarily on the closeness that develops between Leo and his wife as they weather the trauma.

“As their relationship grew,” Murray says, “they learned to trust each other. By the end of his life, Leo’s more grounded, more relaxed, more open. He’s able to say ‘I love you’ to his wife for the first time. For Leo to trust is an enormous development. That, and his submission to the lynching, represent an amazing self-discovery that I think is what the play’s about.”


Off the Stage and Into the Community

There’s a special program after almost every one of the performances of “Parade.”

Cygnet is reaching out to the Jewish community, with lectures and talks by the ADL, and a screening of the Leo Frank documentary at the JCC. Write Out Loud, a performance group that reads literature aloud, will present readings from Steve Oney’s book, and the writer will discuss his work. Composer Jason Robert Brown will take part in a talk-back after a donor dinner and performance.

Despite the depth and breadth of issues, Murray emphasizes, the musical is not all dark and disturbing.

“It’s entertaining, too. There’s some wonderful, upbeat music. It’s a compassionate play, essentially a love story. But you can’t see this show without walking away thinking and talking about the history, the legal issues, the media, the aftermath. There’s so much in it. That’s what I love about it; there are all these layers that draw you in, deeper and deeper. And in the middle of this hurricane is this man. It gets people talking. And that, after all, is why we make theater.”


The San Diego premiere of “Parade” runs March 8-April 22 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., in Old Town.

Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Tickets ($34-$59, with discounts for previews, seniors, students and active-duty military) are available at (619) 337-1525 or


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